The Clegg era starts here

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Notwithstanding my gripe on Thursday, Nick Clegg has had a very good week. He started by putting the finishing touches to his front bench, made a series of appointments regarding reforming party structures (about which I must get around to blogging about it detail at some point), made a well-judged debut at PMQs and has now made a major speech on public services reform.

This is the speech I didn’t get during the leadership election but nonetheless voted for, so I’m delighted my gamble seems to have paid off. Linda Jack’s point that he spelled out his approach in an SMF seminar in December misses the point: he spent the election campaign downplaying all this stuff when so many of us were urging him to be bold. Making a token speech to the SMF, towards the end of the campaign and with no fanfare is the oratorical equivalent of putting planning proposals, to quote Douglas Adams, “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard‘.”

So much for the past and back to today’s speech. I’m happy with it because it moves us forward, not in some symbolic “break with the past” way that some of the headbangers in the party might like but through clear-headed liberal analysis about what is wrong with public services in the UK and how they work elsewhere. There is a clear continuity with the approach the party has always had and the direction it has been traveling in.

It is a very politically calculated speech, and I mean this in a good way. He’s correct to say that the Orange Book was correct to call for the marrying of social and economic liberalism. What no doubt would have been more boring to say was that notwithstanding the question of how you get the balance right there is virtually no-one in the party who would disagree with that sentiment (a point about which most political commentators seem unaware): he could equally have said the same about the “social liberals'” answer to the Orange Book, Reinventing the State.

Some sections in it, such as his call to scrap F and G GCSE grades, probably won’t transform society, but they represent a move away from an “everyone shall have prizes” approach to education and towards clearer delineation between pass and fail. This is symbolism, but in a meaningful way.

Possibly the most important passage of the speech can be summed up in a few lines:

I stand for these simple principles:

The state must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis.

The state must intervene to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals.

And the state must oversee core standards and entitlements.

But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off in providing an array of top-class schools and hospitals.

At first it sounds very motherhood and apple pie, but in practice this is a real challenge for political parties of whatever hue to live up to. Clegg singles out Brown’s approach for failing to live up to these core principles, but the same could be said of Cameron, such as his proposal for a “Tsar of all the MRSAs.”

It will be a key test of the Lib Dems in the future to see if they can live up to these principles or are tempted to jump on this interference bandwagon. The biggest challenge is what exactly is meant by “core standards and entitlements”. You could argue that the National Curriculum does that; Labour certainly do. The National Curriculum is a “minimum standard” that has grown and grown over the past two decades, driven by political expediency. One person’s minimum standard is another person’s nanny-state interference. Literacy? Some educationalists argue you shouldn’t even start to formally teach reading until the age of seven. Sex education?

How do you stop minimum safety nets from transforming into straitjackets over time? And who sets those minimum standards: national or local government? My suspicion is that we need to better spell out what checks and balances need to be put in place for such a system to work in practice, but that is for another time.

His model for Free Schools will also need careful crafting. Over the New Year period, Clegg caused some controversy by endorsing the role faith schools have to play as “engines of integration” in The Jewish News. I commented a few months ago about the hypocrisy of Jonathan Sacks making the same point while opposing any measures which would stop faith schools from being able to choose their own pupils. If Clegg wants to ban selection completely, which also means taking on the handful of local authorities which still have grammar schools, he will have to also take on the faith lobby which he has been courting.

Orthodox Judaism isn’t the real issue here anyway. I’m sure the Vardy Foundation will have very little problem with banning selection if what they’re getting in exchange is even greater freedom to teach creationism. I’m sure the Scientologists Applied Scholastics are similarly licking their lips. And these problems are relatively simple in urban areas where there is a great enough population density to mean that parents have a wide choice of schools to choose from; in rural areas the economics works very differently.

It isn’t all one way of course; under this proposal there is nothing in principle to prevent a group of parents setting up their own school and effectively starving the local brainwashing academy of minds (so long as they can find enough support). If it is an open enough system for L. Ron Hubbard’s supporters, it is certainly an open enough system for fans of Richard Dawkins. The challenge for this proposal (which emphatically is not a fatal one) is how we combat liberalism’s greatest enemy: monopolistic power.

The health proposals are less problematic for me. The idea of allowing patients to go private after a waiting time period has expired is a sensible middle way between the Tory’s old policy of voucher system which would simply have undermined the NHS by allowing the wealthiest to take the money and run, and Labour’s target culture.

Overall then, this is an excellent start for the Clegg era. It is the most thoughtful speech given by a party leader since Ashdown departed these shores for Valinor. I think he needs to slightly change his mode of attack on Cameron, with whom he is so frequently compared. He needs to emphasise that while Cameron adopts similar rhetoric, even if he is being sincere he can never deliver while he is at the mercy of a mulish party which only allows him to lead when it feels like it.

The key fight to pick with Cameron, which to Clegg’s credit he seems to have identified as well, is over school selection. The more Clegg challenges Cameron to support a system which emphasises parental choice over school selection, the more the swivel eyed loons in the Tories will go nuts and start banging on about grammar schools. The fact that Cameron has already buckled under the pressure once suggests this will be a fun fight to watch.

The important point is, Clegg’s speech today is one that Cameron could never afford to make. That is what annoyed me so much about the “senior official’s” interview in the Guardian on Thursday. Our strength, ultimately, is our unity. The Tories’ fatal, potentially election losing flaw is their internal division. It makes no sense to talk up disunity within the party when it prevents us from exposing our opponents’.

Finally, this has been a good speech about challenging what he calls “inherited disadvantage”. That’s fine but ultimately if you want to truly tackle social mobility you need to tackle inherited advantage as well. As Clegg has set up a social mobility commission, he can’t afford to leave it too long before starting to address that.

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